The ski season is coming on fast. In just over a week the World Cup show will be in full swing in Kuusamo, Finland, for the Nordic Opening, and you can bet the hype that goes with the 2013-2014 season will be rocking.
In an Olympic year, the speculation starts early and often. Olympic team previews are being written, water coolers are being assaulted with predictions, and in cross country skiing the small community means we talk about an even smaller cast of characters.
And in the good ol’ US of A (and to a lesser extent, Canada), it’s all going to be about one man – Kris Freeman.
Why? Freeman was dropped from the USST at the end of the 2012-2013, for reasons cited as having a lack of medal potential on a team with a very limited budget.
Regardless of whether your metric is FIS points, World Cup points, or performance at US Nationals, Kris Freeman is at minimum the second-best American male distance skier at this very second. Kris Freeman finished 4th in the 15 km classic individual start race at World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic in 2009. He finished 18 seconds behind a certain Andrus Veerpalu, and was less than 2 seconds from a World Championship bronze medal. He has sixteen National Championship titles, including 5 in the 50 km. Finally, Kris Freeman has Type I diabetes, and is one of very few elite level athletes to compete at the Olympic level while juggling the difficult disease.
The above pedigree places Freeman in the elite category in North American male cross country skiers. Full stop.
Is he still at that elite level? His World Cup point totals in the last two season have barely managed to top 50. Data suggests that he’s now more likely to finish outside the points in the races he starts than inside. So no, he’s no longer at that same elite level.
Through the fall and early World Cup season, there are two things I think Kris Freeman, and the USST system are owed by us, the fans.
Number One – Respect. For both Freeman and the USST. Freeman has battled diabetes and racing on the World Cup and at the Olympics for 12 seasons. That deserves our respect. The USST has supported a ski team that has brought us highlights such as Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the World Championship Team Sprint. If this race gives you the spine-tingly’s, then you have to give the USST some credit. If you don't, then you aren't allowed to be proud of Kikkan and Jessie. Sorry!
Number Two – A focus on the real issue. Kris Freeman’s performance is not the issue. Kris Freeman being dropped from the USST is not the issue. Bill Marolt’s salary is not the issue. Those are all symptoms of a larger problem – that cross country skiing in the United States and Canada is underfunded, under-appreciated (in our view, anyway), and a niche sport. Let’s talk about that. Let's change that. Let's make it so A-Rod's annual salary doesn't dwarf the annual amount of money that USSA and CCC spend on cross country, Nordic Combined, and biathlon a year. (Quick tip: it won't happen overnight.)
Let me be clear, this does not give the USST and Kris Freeman a clear pass not to be criticized. If Freeman struggles out of the gate, and finishes far out of the points, expect me to be the first one to unload both barrels - on his skiing, not his personal life. If the USST ends the season without an Olympic medal, I won’t be pulling any punches - about their policies and choices, not their individual characters.
But in the world of cringe-inducing anonymous internet commenting, let’s treat our heroes with the respect they deserve. Or else we just might not get too many more of them…